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UNESCO and the Mexican Kitchen

Last summer, when it was finally official, every time I had a captive audience I would excitedly announce: Mexican Cuisine has become the first UNESCO cuisine in the world!

Reactions to my enthusiasm were generally a polite cheer, but more a puzzled look. What exactly does that mean?

We certainly have heard much about UNESCO designations in the last years, first for San Miguel de Allende and Atotonilco in 2008, then for the Camino Real al Dentro 2010. And now food?

UNESCO - The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization was founded 65 years ago, shortly after World War II, with the goal to promote peace, social justice, human rights and international security through international cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs.

Among its many pursuits, one of UNESCO's most publicly visible and known efforts is its World Heritage Centers which identify cultural, natural and mixed sites to be protected all over the world in an effort to promote the maintenance of cultural, historic and/or natural heritage in those places for others to see. However, according to UNESCO: "The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”.

These fragile elements of our cultures need to be preserved before they are lost forever, and our future generations should be called upon to continue to be their guardians. Because of this added dimension to the “cultural heritage” definition, a dedicated group of Mexican women chefs and food historians started in 2003 to propose to the UNESCO committee that ancient heritage cuisines should also be included in the intangible group.

At the annual IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) convention in 2003 in Montreal, Canada I first heard about their decision. After an intense day of lectures and presentations, I was relaxing with my Mexican peers and they told me about their plan. I was awestruck by the idea, but then also not too surprised. These Mexican women chefs are a gutsy, intelligent group and fiercely determined to save their culinary heritage.

Through the years I followed their progress, which seemed to be a very slow uphill struggle. Sadly, in 2005 their proposal was turned down, but it did not stop them from trying again, this time with even more determination. Maybe because of the rapid changes in the culinary world that we are experiencing, with all the rush to “global fusion” it has become more apparent that an effort to save our heritage cuisines is urgent before we lose them forever. Mexico has already lost 70% of its indigenous edible plants since the conquest.

Then, last November 14, the official announcement was made in Nairobi, Kenya: the proposal had been accepted. This is part of the description in the text from the UNESCO documents as they relate to Mexican cuisine: "Traditional Mexican cuisine is a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating”.

Of course a spectacular fiesta for the international conference attendees in Nairobi was in order. Crates of food were shipped for its preparation, they contained 5 kg dried shrimp, 2 kg chilmole paste, 6 kg achiote paste, 2 kg meat marinade, 12 kg canned chipotle, 1 pound dried epazote leaves, 2 kg avocado leaves, 20 kg mole poblano, 10 kg pipian verde and much, much more. Of course corn, in all its different stages was the glorious centerpiece of the presentation. Tamales, gorditas, quesadillas, tinga poblana, chochinita pibil, assorted moles and more were served at the festive celebration and emotions were running high. This was much more significant than winning an Olympic Gold Medal. Mexico and the Americas have given the world some of its most beloved foods (chocolate!) and in turn during its bicentennial celebration year Mexico received for its gifts this so much deserved global recognition. Muchas flelicidades y que viva la cocina Mexicana!

I invite you to go on a discovery tour of this amazing cuisine. Start with going to YouTube; type in “foods of Michoacan” and you can watch the 10-minute documentary presented to the UNESCO committee. “America’s First Cuisines” by Sophie Coe is fascinating read. My cooking classes are also always seasoned with many interesting and delicious food facts. For all UNESCO activities go to

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